Early last evening I got to see about 20 minutes of "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," Peter Jackson's third and final installment in his epic rendering of the Tolkien books.
As we could have predicted, the scenes a few of us had the pleasure of screening were top-notch, indicating that Jackson and the folks at New Line Cinema will go boldly into this year's Oscar race with every intention of winning.
And why not? "Return" looks amped for success. We saw about five completed sequences. A couple of them involved Frodo, Sam, and Gollum. Two others were impressive, expansive battle scenes. We got a look at Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen, Bernard Hill and Hugo Weaving — as well as at Elijah Wood and Sean Astin — in full regalia.
One thing that jumped off the screen right away: Howard Shore 's terrific score seems even better used in "Return." And Jackson has grown even more accomplished with his special effects and CGI.
One battle scene in particular, which starts with about 500 extras and then pulls back to an army of computer-generated thousands, will be quite stunning on the big screen.
Will "Return" finally earn this group some well-deserved Oscars? In all likelihood, Jackson is the front-runner for Best Director, certainly, a nod to the enormous achievement of these three films. And this year, maybe for the first time, Hill, Astin, and a couple of the other actors will be up for Best Supporting slots.
I'm told, by the way, there's a chance all three "Lord of the Rings" movies will play in theatres this January about a month after "Return" has its own debut. A special week like this is already in the planning stages for New York. It's a great idea. Count me in.
Yesterday's Los Angeles Times revelations about Arnold Schwarzenegger's treatment of women, coupled with his officially released apology, should only stir the pot between now and Tuesday's recall election.
I am told that one woman who may hold some answers is an actress now married to a high-profile Democrat in Hollywood. The husband is now in the news business, after having done time on a weekly drama.
This woman, who once acted with Arnold, is said to have been a witness to much of his behavior, good and bad. Will she toss her two cents into the mix? Or will Arnold become the governator without more revelations?
One source in the midst of this hoo-ha tells me: "There's a giant army of support for these women [whom Schwarzenegger groped]. He is so disliked. Every set in this city has a story about him."
It used to be that appearing on the Oprah Winfrey show guaranteed instant sales for an author or a pop star. But that may be changing.
Last week Aretha Franklin plugged her new album "So Damn Happy" on Oprah's show. She sang a couple of songs and looked great.
But this week's sales for "So Damn Happy" are about to equal to what they were in the album's first week — 29,000 — and the album is languishing instead of exploding at record stores.
What's so confusing about this is "So Damn Happy" is so damn good. But that's Arista Records' problem, not Oprah's.
Since the beginning of her new season, Winfrey has gone hog-wild trying to get big names onto her show. Madonna, the children's book author, took up a whole hour promoting her book, "The English Roses."
But the "Roses" have failed to bloom completely. Amazon lists the book at number 25 and USA Today has it at 14. In each case, it's on its way down, not up, the charts after a four-week run.
Then there's the new cover of TV Guide which features a rare, candid Oprah interview.
"Why I'm Not Married!" and "Why I Don't Have Children!" are the quotes under her picture. It's hard to imagine this very private woman agreeing to such a thing, and inside there is, alas, little actual information.
Are Oprah's publicists or syndicators so desperate for ratings that they've resorted to this? Where she really belongs is on the cover of Vanity Fair, but you know that's not going to happen in this lifetime.
Of course, the good news is that Oprah's book club is back and making waves. The first new choice was John Steinbeck's "East of Eden," which enjoyed a rare spike in sales and is now the number 42 book on bestseller lists.
The new book-club choice, Alan Paton's classic novel "Cry, the Beloved Country," should be climbing the charts shortly.
If you live in these parts, you may know the history of the Westport Country Playhouse. This was always a charming barn-like structure where some new plays on their way to New York were tried out. It also always carried sort-of second run plays featuring amiable former TV stars. It was a cozy, country endeavor.
Now, some say, Hollywood has wrapped its tentacles around even this. The theatre, now run by the lovely Joanne Woodward (who is also the wife of Paul Newman), has been closed. Millions are being raised for new structure which will be state-of-the-art (yeecch), cold and foreboding. So much for the country feel.
Next Thursday, the Playhouse board is giving itself a fund-raiser in tonier, more upscale nearby Greenwich. It's a self-described "gala" featuring Robin Williams and Carole King.
NBC Chairman Bob Wright and his wife Suzanne, as well as NBC's Stone Phillips and Brian Williams, are highlighted on the invitation. Olivia de Havilland — still alive and kicking! — will offer her congrats via video from her home in Paris. I kid you not.
Long gone are the days of soap stars performing "Harvey." Now the real Harvey — Weinstein, that is — will be in attendance.
So how will the new, important Playhouse attract the New York press all the way up to Greenwich? Probably not with this note that was included on the press release:
"Limited access to the Cocktail Reception (6:30 to 7:15pm) for 'society' print journalists must be arranged in advance. Media access is otherwise limited to the designated press center at the entrance to the event. A live-mix video feed will be available for portions of the evening. Please contact Chance to make arrangements. A monitor will be available in the designated press center to view portions of the event (7:15 to 10:00pm)."
Hey, if the press wants to be treated this badly, we can stay right here in New York. Good luck, Westport Playhouse. Break a leg!